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Nigeria says heavy fighting in northeast, no word on casualties

ABUJA (Reuters) - Nigerian authorities said on Monday there had been heavy fighting between security forces and Islamist militants in a remote part of the northeast, but there was no confirmation of reports from a local official that 185 people had been killed.

Fighting erupted on Thursday in Baga, a fishing town on the shores of Lake Chad, adjacent to the Chadian border, spokesmen for the Borno state government that administers the area and its military said.

A delegation from the state government visited the town on Sunday in the aftermath of the fighting, and a community representative put the death toll at 185, Borno spokesman Umar Gusau said by telephone.

"We are investigating," he said. "For now, we don't have a very good basis for the figure. These people say they have died and they have buried them. From my experience, most times residents exaggerate figures."

He added that since the town had already buried the victims, it had been impossible for authorities to count the bodies.

Authorities were questioning residents about family members who had died to try to estimate the death toll, he said.

Sagir Musa, a spokesman for the mixed military and police Joint Task Force (JTF) in Borno state, also expressed skepticism about the reported toll.

"There was a clash between the Boko Haram terrorists and the JTF but I can tell you is that the death toll was terribly inflated," he said by telephone.

The military is sometimes accused by locals of understating civilian casualties in fighting.

The violence comes as the government awaits a report from a panel tasked with formulating an offer of amnesty for the insurgents if they give up their struggle for an Islamic state, which has killed many hundreds in northern Nigeria in the past three years.

President Goodluck Jonathan wants the panel to establish links with the group, which has so far shown no interest in peace talks.

Jonathan, a Christian southerner, has been unsuccessful in quelling the violence through military means and, in recent weeks, traditional leaders in the predominantly Muslim north have put pressure on him to offer Boko Haram a deal.

If 185 people did die in the Baga fighting, it would be the greatest loss of life in the conflict since 186 people were killed in coordinated strikes by Boko Haram fighters in January 2012 in the north's main city of Kano.

Gusau said parts of Baga were badly damaged when he visited it on Sunday, with several houses burned. He said Nigerian soldiers sometimes over-react when attacked by Boko Haram gunmen, killing many in retaliation.

Boko Haram, which is loosely modeled on the Taliban movement in Afghanistan, wants an Islamic caliphate in Nigeria, a country of 170 million split evenly between Christians and Muslims.

(Reporting by Tim Cocks and Isaac Abrak; Editing by Michael Roddy)